Lionfish appear off N.C. coast

Poisonous species is native to waters of Southeast Asia

May 05, 2002|By Gareth McGrath | Gareth McGrath,WILMINGTON MORNING STAR

WILMINGTON, N.C. - They come to coastal North Carolina from far-away warmer climates, and despite their beauty, they can be a real pain.

They are venomous tropical fish known as lionfish. Local sightings are rare, but scientists say that's good - these fish should not be in North Carolina in the first place.

After two confirmed sightings in 2000, divers spotted lionfish 17 times last year in sites up to 60 miles apart.

That has led officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to believe that the species has established itself off the state's coast.

"Everyone was surprised, but didn't think anything of it," said NOAA biologist Paula Whitfield of the first lionfish sightings in 2000 on the wreck of the Naeco, 40 miles south of Beaufort Inlet, in water 130 feet deep.

`They were back'

"But the next year, they were back, so we knew they were here to stay."

What's not known is the impact Pterois volitans will have on other fish species that already fill the top predator niche that the lionfish occupies in its native habitat.

"It will be interesting to watch how things develop," said Tom Lankford Jr., professor of biological sciences at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington's Center for Marine Science.

So how did a warm-water creature that's normally found in the oceans off Southeast Asia and Australia end up skulking around shipwrecks, reefs and ledges 30 miles off Cape Fear?

One possibility: The fish was brought to U.S. waters in ballast water carried by merchant ships traveling from the Far East. Ballast is used to stabilize ships during transit. But a more likely guess is that the lionfish, which is popular with aquarium owners, was released into the ocean.

Hap Fatzinger, curator with the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, said the facility gets calls every few weeks from people looking to get rid of their lionfish.

`Too dangerous to keep'

"They grow too big, eat everything in the tank or are just too dangerous to keep," he said.

Fatzinger said his best advice to divers that come across a lionfish is to observe it from a safe distance, because although known as a placid fish, the lionfish packs a poisonous punch in its feather-like spines if threatened or attacked.

The fish's venom can produce localized and abdominal pain. Fatalities are rare. If stung, one of the best remedies - as with jellyfish stings - is to bathe the wound in water as hot as the victim can stand, Lankford said.

"You'd really have to try and pick it up" to run afoul of the fish, said John Stout, owner of a Wilmington aquarium business. But he knows firsthand the potency of the lionfish's spines.

While handling a dead lionfish, Stout was stung.

"It hurt pretty bad," he said.

Lionfish released into North Carolina waters probably don't survive very long because of the low water temperatures. But Fatzinger said it's quite possible that lionfish released in Florida could survive and breed. The Gulf Stream could then carry the young fish up the coast.

Additional evidence for that theory is that lionfish off North Carolina's coast have all been spotted close to the Gulf Stream, where water temperatures remain warmer than in the open ocean or inshore waters.

Stout, who sells lionfish imported from the South Pacific, said he was shocked when diver friends started talking about sightings of the colorful fish.

He's not convinced that the exotic fish off the coast are the same as those found off Indonesia. Even if they are, he said it's doubtful most people will ever see them since they are unlikely to come close to shore.

The Morning Star in Wilmington, N.C., is part of the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group.

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